Gustave Courbet (French, 1819-1877)
Gustave Courbet (French, 1819-1877)

Château au bord de la rivière

Gustave Courbet (French, 1819-1877)
Château au bord de la rivière
dated and signed '.56/G. Courbet' (lower left)
oil on canvas
23 x 28½ in. (58.4 x 72.4 cm.)
Anonymous sale; Sotheby's, New York, 29 October 1987, lot 43 (as Château near a River).

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Lot Essay

During his career, Gustave Courbet painted nudes, portraits and other figural paintings, but it is in his landscapes that the personality of the artist and his relationship to his subject is most clearly demonstrated. Courbet was descended from a family whose rapid economic and social ascendancy was specifically tied to the land, and Courbet himself had emotional ties to his native French landscape. This is clearly evident in Château au bord de la rivière.

Courbet's landscapes are sensually perceived manifestations of his idea of the vitality and dynamism of the land itself which is communicated through the actual act of painting. Just as Courbet's relationship to the land is physical, so is the process of transferring that vision to canvas. Courbet used dark grounds to prime his canvases, learned from the Dutch Old Masters in the Louvre, and built up his landscapes from dark to light, bringing the painting to life in the same way the sunlight brightens the greens of the forest. Courbet painted with a brush, but also used a palette knife to capture the solidity of the rock formations and sometimes used bags, sponges and even his fingers in order to create the visceral quality of the weight of forms in nature.

From the beginning of the 1850s, Courbet's landscape painting began to develop in a new and more visceral direction. The artist came to the belief that nature was so dramatic in its own right there was little need for figures and he moved away from the panoramic landscapes that marked the earlier period in his oeuvre. In the present lot, landscape itself is the portrait, for the land has a physiognomy like the features of a face. Courbet in Château au bord de la rivière has presented the viewer with a lovingly painted portrait of the strange beauty of his native country.

Château au bord de la rivière is an extraordinary example of Courbet's new approach to landscape painting by the artist at the height of his powers. All human activity has disappeared from the canvas. Sunlight dapples the side of the hill in the foreground and rich, dark greens predominate in the copse of trees on the side of the hill. The viewpoint from slightly below confers a monumentality to the predominant landscape feature, the copse of trees in the middle ground and also forces the viewer to look up to the structure of the chateau, nestled in its cradle of trees. Courbet has arbitrarily cut off the landscape on the edges of the painting creating a sense of immediacy and further reinforcing the concept of landscape as portrait.

In the autumn of 1856, Courbet traveled to Le Blanc in the Indré department for his friend Clement Laurier's wedding. 'I spent five weeks in Le Blanc. I painted a portrait and four landscapes in spite of Laurier's wedding' (Letter to his family, 15 October 1856 in P. ten Doesschate Chu, ed., Letters of Gustave Coubet, Chicago, 1992, p. 153). One of these landscapes was presented by Courbet to Clément Laurier, probably as a wedding present and the other three landscapes cannot be identified with any certainty. Fernier has suggested that the present painting may be one of these three landscapes or that the scene is Le Logis de Montcharente near Port Berteau.

Jean-Jacques Fernier confirmed the authenticity of this painting in a letter dated 6 September 1987.

We are grateful to Sarah Faunce for confirming the authenticity of this painting.

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